What Is a Speech Pathologist?

Also Known as a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) or Speech Therapist

If you or a loved one is having difficulty with communication, you may benefit from the skilled services of a speech pathologist. A speech pathologist, also known as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) or speech therapist, is a healthcare professional who helps people improve their speech and communication if they have been ill, injured, or if they have a chronic disability.

Speech pathologists also work with people who are having difficulty swallowing food or drink to improve safety while eating.

This article examines the important work that speech pathologists do as part of a rehabilitation team of professionals. You will learn what conditions they treat and when you should seek out the services of an SLP.

A female speech pathologist is teaching a child patient
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What Speech Pathologists Do

A speech pathologist is a trained medical professional who works with patients who are injured or ill and are having difficulty speaking or swallowing. They work to prevent, assess, and treat language, swallowing, and communication disorders in adults and children. These disorders can result from an injury or a chronic disability.

Speech pathologists help people communicate, and this may involve:

  • Expressive communication: The ability to communicate verbally and nonverbally
  • Receptive communication: The ability to understand verbal and nonverbal communications

So, if you are having trouble forming words to speak, your speech therapist may help. If you are having difficulty understanding language or speech, an SLP may provide treatment.

Some speech therapists work closely with audiologists (healthcare professionals who treat hearing and balance problems) to ensure that you are able to hear and understand language correctly. Others work with otolaryngologists, also called ear, nose, and throat physicians (ENTs), to help patients swallow food and drink safely and to assist patients with oral motor function.

Where They Work

There are a variety of settings in which speech pathologists work. This may include:

  • Schools
  • Nursing homes
  • Hospitals
  • Private practices

Speech pathologists may also work as educators in colleges and universities, and they may be involved in research.

What SLPs Treat

Speech pathologists work with people of various ages and with a variety of conditions. They sometimes work with young children who are having problems speaking properly, or they may help older adults with cognitive communication (communication that is affected by memory, attention, organization, and problem-solving, which are examples of executive functioning).

Conditions

Conditions that speech pathologists may treat include:

  • Stuttering or stammering
  • Difficulty speaking after stroke or another neurological injury
  • Difficulty understanding language after injury
  • Difficulty swallowing food or drink
  • Articulation (the correct formation of words and sounds)
  • Cognitive communication problems that may occur with the cognitive decline seen in dementia or Alzheimer's disease
  • Modified speech and voice techniques for transgender individuals

If you are learning a new language and wish to alter your accent, you may benefit from the services of a speech-language pathologist, as well. They can help you form words and sounds correctly to alter your normal speech in learning a new language.

Education and Training

If you require the services of a speech pathologist, you can be sure that they are a highly trained and competent healthcare professional. To be a speech pathologist, a person must have a master's degree in communication disorders. Their first year of work is called a clinical fellowship year. During this time, they will work under the supervision of a licensed speech pathologist.

Speech pathologists must also pass a national examination to become licensed to practice.

Their speech pathologist's education does not end when they leave school and pass the national examination. They must also fulfill continuing education requirements from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) to maintain their license.

When to See a Speech Pathologist

There are certain instances in which you may need to see a speech pathologist. For example, parents commonly notice small speech impairments in their children and seek out an SLP. These impairments may include:

  • An inability to speak
  • An inability to form correct sounds for letters and words
  • Stuttering
  • Difficulty reading and understanding age-appropriate books

Adults may want to work with a speech pathologist, including for the following:

  • Stuttering
  • Difficulty swallowing food or drink
  • Development of slurred, imprecise, or difficult-to-understand speech due to facial muscle weakness (may occur with various conditions, such as myasthenia gravis, Bell's palsy and, botulism)
  • Difficulty producing or processing language, a condition called aphasia
  • Acquired apraxia, or difficulty pronouncing words correctly, inconsistent speech, or groping for words due to brain injury

If you become hospitalized, you may have a speech pathologist come to your room and work with you at your bedside. They can help you with speech and language, swallowing and diet issues, and can work with other members of a rehab team to ensure that it is safe and appropriate for you to return home.

When to See a Medical Professional

If you start having any difficulty with speaking or understanding language, or if you develop difficulty swallowing, make sure you visit your healthcare provider right away. They can assess your condition and refer you to a speech pathologist, if necessary.

If these symptoms occur suddenly and severely, call 911.

How to Become a Speech Pathologist

To become a speech pathologist, after acquiring a four-year degree, you must attend a graduate program and earn a master's degree in speech therapy or communication disorders. That college must be accredited by the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CAA).

Steps to becoming a speech pathologist include:

  • Obtain an undergraduate degree in a health field, such as biology or communication disorders.
  • Graduate from a communication disorders program accredited by the CAA.
  • Complete a post-graduate clinical fellowship year (CFY). This allows you to obtain a certificate of clinical competence in SLP (CCC-SLP).
  • Pass a national Praxis examination for Speech-Language Pathology.
  • Apply for SLP licensure in the state in which you will be working.

Many undergraduate and graduate programs in speech pathology require that you spend some time observing a speech therapist at work prior to admission. With this, you'll satisfy the requirement for entry into school, and you'll have a good understanding of what a speech pathologist's job is like.

Summary

If you or a loved one is having trouble communicating or understanding language, then working with a speech pathologist may be a good idea. SLPs treat children and adults with a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer's disease, stroke, neurological injuries, autism, and more. They are trained to assess your condition and offer strategies to improve your expressive and receptive communication and swallowing function.

A Word From Verywell

Experiencing difficulty with speech, language, articulation, or swallowing can affect every aspect of your life, from work to school to relationships. It's frustrating to feel that you can't communicate the way you need to. If you or a loved one is going through this, you may benefit from seeing a speech pathologist.

Talk to your healthcare provider to see if an SLP is a good fit for you. Depending on your situation, they may recommend you see a physical therapist or occupational therapist in addition or instead.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What should your college major be to become a speech pathologist?

    Speech pathologists typically major in a health field and then attend a master's program in communication, communication disorders, or speech therapy.

  • What salary does a speech pathologist make?

    The average annual compensation for a speech pathologist is approximately $86,000.

  • Who should become a speech pathologist?

    If you enjoy working closely with people of all ages, enjoy the healthcare profession, and like psychology and communications, you may wish to consider SLP as a career.

  • Who should not become a speech pathologist?

    If you have an introverted personality or would not like to participate in procedures that would require visualizing the inside of the throat or swallowing mechanism, then perhaps speech pathology is not for you.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Speech Language Hearing Association. Who are speech pathologists, and what do they do?.

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